Part I: Pepsi and the Protests
by Nick Guadagnino
The saying “when it rains, it pours” has some truth to it after all. Over the span of one week in early April, three PR disasters occurred, forcing the companies and individuals responsible into crisis mode. And unless you live under a rock, you surely have seen them discussed extensively on broadcast TV and social media. Some handled their crisis better than others, but each example can teach businesses valuable lessons about the delicacy needed in crisis communications. To kick off this trilogy of blog posts, let’s go back to the day it all began.
April 4, 2017
On Tuesday, April 4, Pepsi debuted its latest commercial, titled “Jump In,” via its YouTube channel. Starring Kendall Jenner, the ad “shows attractive young people holding milquetoast signs with nonspecific pleas like ‘Join the conversation’,” according to The New York Times. Jenner cuts through the crowd of smiling and innocuous protestors toward a line of police officers, where she hands a can of Pepsi to an officer and is met with, “raucous approval from the protestors and an appreciative grin from the officer.” In turn, the protest ends and all –isms are laid to waste. Thanks, Pepsi!
The ad was almost instantly met with criticism and ridicule. Evoking imagery from Black Lives Matter protests, Pepsi was accused of leveraging social hardships as a means to sell its product, downplaying the gravity inherent with these protests. People took to social media to express their outrage, including Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. By then it was clear that Pepsi needed to take action—and fast.
On Wednesday, the ad was pulled and Pepsi issued the following apology:
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
By luck, Pepsi came away from its crisis with less damage than it could have suffered. Timing played a contributing factor, as a United Airlines incident happened four days after the commercial was pulled and Sean Spicer’s Holocaust comments were broadcast two days after that. But Pepsi did the right thing in pulling the commercial immediately and not only issuing an apology, but releasing one that was short, elaborating on the message of the commercial and accepting responsibility when it “missed the mark.”
It’s important to know that an apology doesn’t make all problems go away. Pepsi will have to take every possible precaution when unveiling its next campaign and any campaign beyond that. This tone-deaf spot shows a clear disconnect between advertisers and consumers, a misunderstanding that must be correct if brands want to properly connect and engage with its audience. But when it comes to public relations, Pepsi did the right thing.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for United Airlines… Check back for more on flying the not-so-friendly skies.